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MLK Library Space Needs Now Stated as Requiring 100% of Existing Building;Possible Rooftop Structure Under Review

Accompanying images can be viewed in the November 2014 issue PDF

By Anthony L. Harvey

Plans for an expanded, visionary recapturing of the original plans and designs — with added interior light wells and the removal of yellow brick walls, the possibility of carving out the center of upper floors to create a sky-lit atrium, and a rooftop terrace surrounding additional floors — for the award-winning Mies van der Rohe-designed Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library building are experiencing a forward momentum created by significant recent expressions of architectural ingenuity by the Library’s architects, the flexible and far-sighted programmatic planning by staff and officials of the DC Public Library and the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), and thoughtful and construction engagement in these efforts by individuals and citizen groups, including the Friends of the MLK Library, the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, and the Library’s immediate neighbors in the 900 block of G Street, NW.

These ongoing efforts are all coming together in a shared desire to create an iconic central library building that will both dazzle and engage Washingtonians with a beautiful community gathering space full of enhanced 21st century library resources — a cornucopia of compellingly engaging library, learning, and performance activities, and a building with innovative interior spaces to support both new and traditional library and information systems services coupled with the provision of adequate community meeting and event spaces, performance spaces, and the inclusion in such a new structure of the means for the further recognition of the legacy of Dr. King.

Adding a Rooftop Structure

The next step in these collaborative efforts will occur in an NCPC consultation, as required by Section 106 of the 1966 National Historic Preservation Act, on November 19th from 2:30 to 4:00 pm in the Digital Commons “Dream Lab” at the MLK Library at 9th and G Streets, NW to assess and determine the impacts — positive and negative — of proposed changes and additions to this historic landmarked building and its monumental first floor interior — and with it having been constructed in 1969 to 1972 as a federal building, in terms of its historic site, and the far-sighted recognition at that time of the criticality of this new central library’s location in the center of a planned urban renaissance and surrounded by bus routes and central subway locations.

On view in the library’s Dream Lab will be a fascinating array of alternative plans and design adaptations that to lesser and greater degrees respect and enhance Mies’ original plans, and prospectively serve to further the memorializing of Dr. King. Any asserted adverse effects will be documented for further review and decision-making by myriad bureaucratic and regulatory bodies which oversee such matters. Other reviews will be required, including an environmental impact study. The District’s transportation and regulatory agencies and zoning commissions will weigh in as will the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, the DC Historic Preservation Board, and NCPC itself. The Secretary of the Interior will become involved if a new mayor and city council decide on a public/private partnership for any prospective additional floors and tax credits become an issue.

The Four Options

The alternative concept plans and designs are available for viewing on the NCPC website at http://tinyurl.com/k468o5n; that document also provides an historical context for this extraordinary proposed redevelopment. The Section 106 process requires the submission of four design alternatives, the first of which is a “no new” design Scheme A (shown above) and thus pictures the existing building. The second, Scheme B (shown above), includes a roof terrace accompanied by a rectilinear style set of additional floors diagonally mounted atop a surrounding terrace; Scheme C presents a third alternative in the form of a curvilinear, amoeba-like structure of multiple floors atop its terrace; Scheme D concludes the design alternatives with an additional rectilinear- style fifth floor set back from all four sides which are surrounded by its rooftop terrace in the large setback area. Visually disconcerting green roofs abound; however, since these new roofs would be on the MLK Library’s additional floor (or floors) they would not be visible from the street.

Library Reverses Initial Space Needs Assessment

The most dramatic programmatic development to accompany these new plans and designs was the recent October announcement by the Library that it had reversed its earlier assessment that the MLK library building was too large for existing and planned library purposes and needed to be downsized; instead, MLK now finds that it needs the space of the existing building plus that of an additional fifth floor.

In an October press release, it was announced that its architectural team — the Washington firm of Martinez and Johnson partnering with the Belgian firm of Mecanoo Architects — “working with Library officials, determined that more space would be needed in the building to accommodate many of the public’s ideas. This additional space would be used to provide new services. These, according to Library officials would include:

“A welcoming and inviting entry to the library to address customer concerns about the entrance being unwelcoming and not giving clear direction to the upper floors.

“A café and restaurant to accommodate people’s desire to enjoy meals and beverages in the library.

“More rooms to address the desire to offer space for community meetings, author talks, performing arts, innovation, co-working and school field trips.

“A larger space for children’s programming and books to address the larger number of children that visit the library regularly and for story times.

“A larger teen space that accommodates requests for a variety of reading/studying places; informal meeting areas; lounge clusters with comfortable seating; and a digital media center.”

The proposed renovated library would also feature an additional floor with a rooftop terrace for use with reading and library programs. And while the space for library programs will increase, “the space allocated for staff and support services will be redesigned and streamlined.

[Editor’s Note: For complete details, see the Library’s “Draft Library Building Program” document (somewhat edited for space & formatting), available at http://tinyurl.com/ovobznn.]

The Library offered two provisional caveats: “the location of services will be finalized as the renovation designs are further developed. To ensure the long-term viability of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, the project may include the construction of additional space for complementary non-library [purposes] using a public-private partnership.” The second of these two caveats explicitly reflects the Urban Land Institute’s 2011 study — commissioned by the Library — on the suitability of the Mies van der Rohe building for a modern, 21st century library.

That study concluded with a positive response to the suitability question together with a final report containing recommendations and findings that outlined two options: “(1) Renovate the building for sole use by the library; (2) Renovate and add two or more floors to the building, sharing occupancy with other tenants, and using the revenue from the additional space to help fund the renovation of the library.”

Major Organizations Register Concerns

Opposition from organizations to the four concept alternatives being presented has immediately arisen from important stakeholders and neighbors. In writing to Richard Reyes-Galvan, Chief Librarian and Executive Director of the DC Public Library System, on behalf of the Library’s immediate neighbor to the west, the First Congregational United Church of Christ, Senior Minister Sidney D. Fowler and church officials reminded the Library that as they progressed with the planning of their new building, which includes an office tower above their sanctuary, “we sought to be very sensitive to the context of our new building relative to our neighbors, particularly MLK Library. Thus, we cut away the top of the building so that MLK was more visible and adopted a minimalist design. It is our hope that any addition to the building will follow the expansion design Mies van der Rohe foresaw and continue the current floor pattern upward rather than departing significantly from his intention as the current proposed diagonal addition does.”

Continuing, Fowler noted, “we would like to work with the Library on a treatment for this outdoor space [between the two buildings] that would create a clear view from 9th St. through the MLK Plaza and ending at the handsome gray wall and light box of the church. To do this would require cutting the yellow wall back to the fence that closes off the alley and perhaps placing a significant piece of sculpture related to Dr. King and his legacy facing east with the gray brick wall of the Church as the backdrop. This could tie the open space under the Library with the pocket park as one visually seamless space. Perhaps we could collaborate on a grant application for a permanent piece of artwork to tie these two spaces together as one grand public plaza.”

In a subsequent letter to NCPC’s project manager Jennifer Hirsch, Meg Maguire, the church’s site development chairperson writing as a member of the MLK Library Renovation Advisory Panel, proposed — among other things — a fifth alternative, a “Scheme E,” that would entail a Miesian addition of one floor — such an addition being anticipated in Mies’ original plans. Maguire reminded Hirsch that “as part of its work for the Urban Land Institute, the Freelon Group developed an option that shows the simple and handsome solution.” Maguire would add to this new option a glass ceiling for this non-load bearing top floor addition.

In a lengthy and detailed compilation of observations and recommendations conveyed to Hirsch by Nancy MacWood, Chair of the Committee of 100, one of whose members, Stuart Gosswein, also serves as a member of the renovation advisory panel, MacWood takes note — as does Maguire — of the lack of community involvement in the development of specifications for the Library’s need of all four floors of the existing building and an additional fifth floor.

MacWood concludes her lengthy letter with a statement expressing the Committee’s preference for retention of the current four-story structure and “respectfully requests that a fifth concept design (alternative E) consisting of a one-story extension of the Mies designed building be included within the scope of the current Environmental Assessment and Section 106 consultations in case a fifth floor is deemed necessary based on further analysis.”

Continuing, MacWood adds, “The Committee of 100 supports a combination of compatible elements from the other four Alternatives described above within a newly renovated building although this should not include rooftop trees or outside access.” Earlier in her letter, MacWood noted the Committee’s support for the inclusion in a fifth concept design of a “glass ceiling allowing visitors to view the city from a spectacular enclosed, light-filled event space that would be available throughout the year.”

In a three-part transmittal comprising a letter, an attachment, and a resolution directed to NCPC’s Hirsch from Robin Diener, President of the MLK Library Friends and, like Gosswein and Maguire, a member of the renovation panel, Diener expresses the support of the Friends for “this latest concept to creatively renovate the central library and expand public space.” Emphasizing its endorsement of “light and vibrancy,” Diener adds the Friends’ strong concerns regarding ensuring “the highest possible standards for environmental sustainability” and the retention of the public’s ownership of the MLK building and its air space. A further “resolves” clause of the Friends’ resolution adds the recommendation that if additional floors are required they be occupied by related public bodies such as the DC Archives.

The letter’s appendix provides further historical context for prior MLK library renovation proposals, highlighting and illustrating AIA Committee Chair Kent Cooper’s atrium and reading room proposal, which was commissioned by the Library’s Board of Trustees, and the Freelon Group’s 2012 proposal — also endorsed by Meg Maguire. The “Transparency and Light” section is illuminated with a beautiful architectural rendering from the Martinez and Johnson, Mecanoo Architects team, and the Friends express strong support for “replacing brick with glass,“ both inside and on the outside of the building.

After first noting the District’s “rainy day” financial reserves of over $1 billion and its construction and renovation of 16 branch libraries solely with public dollars, the MLK Library Friends resolution “requests that city officials authorize full public funding for the renovation of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial Library without additional for-profit commercial or residential development.”

[Editor’s Note: Our most recent report on this long-running story (since 2006), see “MLK Library Reconstruction Planning Now Moving Forward, Funding Issues to Delay,” InTowner, June 2014 issue PDF page 1; http://tinyurl.com/ppjgd3d. Earlier in year we reported on the proposals submitted by the competing finalist architectural firms. See, “DC Library Trustees Select Architectural Team for the Long-Awaited Reconstruction of MLK Central Library at Gallery Place,” InTowner, March 2014 issue PDF page 1; http://tinyurl.com/ltrfl29. And for further background, see “Disposition or Retention of MLK Main Library Building Subject of In-Depth Report to Guide DC Library Trustees,” InTowner, March 2012 issue PDF page 1; http://tinyurl.com/lou5r6b.]